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Summer Camp 101: How to Survive and Thrive as a Summer Camp Counselor

Summer camps are a time for kids to play and have fun. Often, when we begin a program with “fun” serving as the primary goal, we forget that we are also serving as teachers in most capacities. Below is a list of tips and tricks we found helpful in running and managing a summer camp program that is both engaging and conducive to the success of the organization.

1. Set Clear Expectations

This is the single most important item on this list, and as such will likely be referenced throughout. If you take nothing else from this list, remember just this one step, and your summer will be much improved. Set clear expectations for yourself, your counselors, and your students.

Okay, so what does that look like? How’s it done?

  • Pick a couple boundaries you’d like to establish, and stick to them. Five is a good standard, keeping the list easy to learn and easy to communicate. This list should cover the types of issues you may need to regularly address. The big ones are usually bathroom breaks, requests for assistance, seating/listening positions, and how to handle transitions from one activity to the next.

  • Keep the list brief. For example, the most important item on my list is “stay seated.” My poster will say just those two words, but I’ll go onto explain what this looks like on day one (more on this later). By the way, if this isn’t on your list, go ahead and just add this to the number 1 position. It is truly astounding how extreme the disruption can become, when just ONE student gets out of their chair. For. Real. When I was in the classroom, this was how at least 50% of the fights started.

  • Sit the kids down first thing on day one, keep their eyes on you, and communicate these expectations. It helps if you or an “expert” from the audience can help demonstrate the use of these techniques so there aren’t any miscommunications.

  • Have and demonstrate your attention grabber. This is the technique you’ll use to regain their attention. My personal favorite is the “high five” (that’s the one where the teacher holds one hand up above their head and puts the other firmly in the “shhh!” position). Whatever method you settle on, use this technique often, and WAIT for their attention to return to you. Do NOT raise your voice to come UP to their level. The goal is to bring them back DOWN to yours.

2. Prepare EVERYTHING in Advanced

Boredom breeds chaos. There will always be at least one kid in the room who transforms into something akin to a rabid squirrel in times of boredom, and when that beast rears its furiously cute little head, it has the power to transform the rest of them at will. It’s a full moon scenario, and anytime the kids are waiting on you, the potential for bestial levels of malcontent increases exponentially. Avoid wait times like they’re covered in COVID. One way to do this is to make sure you prepare all your activities and arrange for materials in advanced.

When an activity is prepared properly, the supplies will be sorted, plated, and ready to be set on the table with the least number of steps possible. For items with preparation restrictions (like paint, animals, etc.) have a plan in place to expedite the process. If you have a camp counselor who can dole out paint and grab water for rinsing brushes, have them prepping materials while you’re still teaching the previous activity. If you plan to have the kids assist in set up, consider what that might look like. How many students can be out of their seats without causing mayhem? What should the other kids be doing during this time? Sitting on their hands? (Yes, this is an entirely acceptable response.) Who can be trusted? If you’re thinking “All of them! They’re in 4th grade!” I’d like to remind you that you are in fact living on planet Earth and teaching human children. Turn on the news, watch, grieve a little… now you know what I mean.

Regardless of what you decide, make sure your expectations for the activity and transition are known in advance, so that neither your students, or your counselors, are confused.

3. Schedule More Than Necessary

Write out a schedule of activities that more than fills the day (one that can be read and implemented by a substitute if needed), then add a few extra activities to the end. If you don’t need the additional activities, great! It’s better to over-prepare for times when they fly through an activity or a project fails.

4. Pinterest is Your Friend… Most of the Time

If you haven’t already done so, create a Pinterest account. There are millions of craft activities and lesson plans available that serve summer camp groups extremely well. Pick these out in advanced, and start collecting supplies (up-cycling is very popular on Pinterest, and we wholeheartedly encourage it). With that said, not every well-meaning post is trustworthy. I can’t tell you how many times we attempted a Pinterest project that looked wonderful online, and failed miserably in real life. The people posting these projects have time to make mistakes, and are more than happy to take advantage of misleading camera angles. Always test the projects on your own first, no matter the source.

5. Instruct, Then Deliver

Once the kids have supplies in hand, you’ve already lost at least half of their attention. Teach and demonstrate first, then deliver supplies (to your most patient kiddos first). In this way, you are reinforcing your expectations, training them to show listening skills during your demo, and rewarding those who set the best example.

6. Plan to Clean

Regardless of how well you plan, chances are you will need to clean up one mess in preparation for another. This will look different for each activity. Which kids can be trusted to rinse paint trays, and which will be so covered in paint already that the only thing they can manage is washing their own hands? When it’s time to clean, get their attention using your special “signal,” and make your clean-up expectations known. Do this BEFORE they get up and start moving around.

Are we seeing a trend yet?

7. Transition Seamlessly

Transitions have the potential to take a perfect day, and turn it completely upside down and backwards. Reigning kids in after a botched transition is a waste of time and energy that you won’t get back. When switching gears, stop all activity in the room, get their attention, and direct their efforts in the proper direction. Once they have their orders, you can turn them loose with a specific goal in mind. Bypassing this step is basically choosing to make the long journey into the realms of insanity. It’s called self-care.

8. Use Morning Work

There’s a reason your teachers always started classes with bell work. It’s a tried-and-true way to keep kids entertained and under control while the teacher (you) takes care of daily tasks like attendance, parent drop-off, etc. Much like your emergency activities, these should require little interference from you, but because you can prepare them in advanced, have the capacity to be more engaging. This is likely the time that your parents will be coming in and checking out all the amazing things you’re doing with their kiddos. Yes, they will judge. Yes, that matters.

9. Be Consistent

Remember that list of expectations you came up with? The moment you slip up, they will sense it like a dog smells fear. It’s their super power. Okay, so maybe that sounds dramatic, but it’s actually much worse than whatever it is you’re imagining. It’s verifiable teacher-science. Once you disregard one of your previously established boundaries, the rest fall like dominoes, and you’ll be left to clean up the mess alone (and without any ice cream).

10. Revisit Expectations as Needed

Even if you do remain consistent throughout the entire summer camp program, there will be times when the kids slip up. They are learning how to behave in a manner that fits YOUR needs, which is likely very different from how they behave at home, in school, or even with their other camp counselors. Be patient with them, and reinforce your expectations as needed. They WILL need reminders, and that’s okay. It is not a sign of disrespect; they just haven’t developed a habit of behaving in a way that aligns with your specific expectations yet. You’ll probably feel like a nag by the end of the day, but they are there to have fun, and the devolution into chaos will not be fun for anybody —except perhaps the rabid squirrels at the center of it all.

11. Plan for Disciplinary Issues

Yes, kids are great and wonderful, but they are still kids. We can’t expect them to self-regulate all the time, especially considering most adults can’t. Have a plan of action for moments when a kid goes too far. How will you deescalate the situation? What will the other kids be doing during this time? What steps will you take to prevent recurrences? What steps will be taken to dissuade them from acting out again? Will they lose privileges? Receive a written warning? Do you have a member of management that can step in when needed to have the child removed?

Phew! That’s a lot to consider! Good thing you’re thinking about it now rather than waiting until Danny-gum-chewer spits a big wad of Bubble-Yum in Jenny’s hair.

12. Emergency Activities

The one guarantee when working with a group of kids is that there WILL be seemingly randomly occurring interruptions that pull your attention away from the group. It’s important to have some zero prep activities ready for these moments, just in case. These should be self-directed activities that require little to no interference from you. Keep these activities in your back pocket, and pull them out when Maggie skins her knee, you’re waiting for buses, or you’re resolving disciplinary issues. I’ll be busy praying you don’t need them.

13. Silently Redirect

This is the magic sauce. Truly. Post your expectations somewhere in the room, and when a kid crosses a boundary line, tap the table beside them and nod your head toward the classroom expectation. Most of the time, they’ll get the point, and they’ll appreciate your attempt at discretion. But as soon as you open your mouth, you are setting the stage for a response, and if I wrote out the gritty details of how this little phenomenon played out in real life, I’d bring shame upon the next thirty generations of my family. Kids feel compelled to react when confronted, and why shouldn’t they? As much as we hate managing behavioral issues, they hate being publicly humiliated. Show them respect, and you’ll get better results. Always.

That’s it! [Insert encouraging phrase that is oddly specific to your situation]. You got this!

For more tips, check out our other blog posts where we cover everything from hosting family friendly events, to leading small group activities.

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